Common Core isn’t getting much love on the presidential campaign trail this summer as candidates of both parties remain vague about the education program, backpedal from previous support or denounce it outright.
Meanwhile, sweeping education reform bills pending in the U.S. House and Senate say the feds couldn’t force or entice states to adopt Common Core or any other specific federal standards for public schools.
“Both bills say you can’t bully or bribe states into it,” a Senate aide close to the education bill told me after the House passed its rewrite of the long-expired and much-reviled No Child Left Behind Act last week.
While Common Core and its rigorous – some say onerous – PARCC standardized testing regimen have become a public education lightning rod, New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera and her boss, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, keep singing the program’s praises.
In an interview with me on Friday, Skandera said the federal government should mandate that states adopt at least baseline education standards in exchange for federal funding. That’s contrary to the views of some U.S. House Republicans, including Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who last week backed an amendment that would have given states free rein to adopt whatever public education standards they want – or none at all. That amendment failed when even some House Republicans balked. The original No Child Left Behind Bill, which then-Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico helped write, garnered widespread bipartisan support when Congress passed it in 2001, but its testing requirements are now viewed as excessive by Republicans and Democrats. Skandera said that tweaking the requirements makes sense, but that scrapping them doesn’t.
“The requirement that you have a school accountability system is a must, but the state – which New Mexico has done and done well – needs to be able to decide what that school accountability system looks like,” Skandera said.
Introduced in New Mexico five years ago with the support of President Barack Obama’s administration, Common Core sets guidelines for public school students’ proficiency in mathematics, language arts and literacy. Governors and education experts designed the standards, but the curriculum is devised locally.
Conservatives view Common Core as a federal intrusion because the Obama administration offers financial assistance to states that adopt the standards. But left-leaning teachers unions aren’t fans of Common Core either, denouncing the amount of student testing and that teacher evaluations are based in part on that testing.
Skandera said she prefers the bipartisan U.S. Senate bill, which cleared that chamber’s education committee unanimously and is up for debate on the Senate floor this week, to the fiercely partisan House bill, which didn’t garner a single Democratic vote last week. The two bills actually aren’t much different on the issue of school accountability. Both would require states to put some accountability measures in place in exchange for federal education dollars, but both also say the feds can’t use carrots or sticks to ensure the adoption of particular standards.
It’s also important to note that neither the House nor Senate bill would prevent or preclude states from retaining Common Core as a guide for ensuring student achievement. And that’s exactly what Skandera and Martinez intend to do.
“At the end of the day, we in New Mexico chose Common Core state standards, and they are our standards because we want high standards for our kids,” Skandera said. “We chose our PARCC (standardized testing) assessment because it aligns to those standards. It’s the right thing for our kids, and we’ll stick to it.”
The House bill, which Obama has threatened to veto, includes language that would allow parents to opt their students out of whatever standardized testing regimen a state eventually adopts. The provision is not included in the Senate bill and likely won’t make the final version of whatever legislation Congress ultimately sends to Obama’s desk.
Skandera suggested that permitting parents to let their kids sit out the standardized tests would flout a civic responsibility to ensure students are learning what they need “for college or career.”
“Our taxpayers deserve to know if these dollars are being used effectively, but frankly so do our parents and students,” Skandera said. “Are we seeing a good return on our investment? When we see flexibility that is divorced from accountability, history shows that is not a recipe for success for our kids or their futures. Flexibility has to be married to accountability and expectations around students.”
The New Mexico education chief recalled former President George W. Bush’s education reform slogan that decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Skandera said dropping all federal requirements for education standards would be akin to “the soft bigotry of no expectations.”
“We would be going back decades if we are not transparent and accountable,” she said. “We need to be going forward.”
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